Chuck wagon classics served in a comfortable setting
This is the kind of old-fashioned breakfast/lunch spot that's disappearing from the scene as quickly as land on the west mesa is being gobbled up by hungry developers. I'm talking about the kind of place where everybody knows your name, or at least calls you “hon'” until they do.
The doors open at 8 a.m. since owner Susan Violette has a 30-minute commute from the East Mountains after taking care of her hungry horses and morning chores. If the weather's mean and it looks like there's a storm out east in Tijeras Canyon, Susan warns, “Give a call and make sure I've got the place open, many folks in town don't realize how bad the weather can be on just the other side of the mountain. Sometimes we get here early and if there's a line outside, we'll open early.”
The atmosphere here is downright “down home,” from the red cowboy print café curtains to the colorful bandanas and cute boots filled with silk daisies that garnish the tables. There are several red leatherette booths and a few tables in the two smallish rooms, which make up the café. The place has a friendly casualness that fosters a lot of cross talk between tables, even between complete strangers. Lots of western photos, prints and cowboy paraphernalia are everywhere. And then there's the vittles.
Breakfast is served all day, but the early bird gets the bargain. I may rise early, but I will rarely shine and make it anywhere for a bargain breakfast, but if you get there between 8 and 9 a.m. you can enjoy the early bird specials--bacon and eggs with hash browns or two hot cakes with an egg and two slices of bacon for a mere $3.55.
Choices on the breakfast menu are extensive and actually quite varied. There are 16 fluffy omelets to choose from, including the usual suspects and a few surprises like omelets with bay shrimp, avocado and cheese for $8.95; refried beans and onions topped with red or green chile at $6.25; or, for a dollar more, try the deli pastrami, corned beef and cheese omelet. Omelets come with toast and potatoes.
You can spice up your day early, with several vaquero especials (Mexican cowboy specials). They include the ever-popular huevos rancheros and several jalapeño, chile, chorizo and egg combinations. Like I mentioned, there are lots of other choices, too. You've got your flap jacks, oatmeal, Texas French toast, juices, melon, half grapefruit and most all of the usual breakfast stuff, but you won't find a grain of granola here--somehow it just wouldn't fit.
The best thing on the menu was the chicken fried steak ($8.95). I enjoyed it as part of a spectacular breakfast special that included big cumulous cloud-like grilled biscuits, showered in delicious country-style, thick white gravy with flecks of spicy sausage and served with potatoes and scrambled eggs to boot. Thank goodness I didn't grow up in the southern section of the country or I'd need to have a chicken-fried steak fix more often. I can feel my cholesterol rising just remembering that delicious, southern classic. You don't have to go full tilt though; you can have egg dishes any way you want them, and then add a slab of ham steak, bacon or homemade corned beef hash.
The coffee didn't pass muster from my posse's perspective, it just wasn't full-favored enough for our taste. My cowboy buddy Ron defended the wimpy brew, however. “It's just like cowboy coffee, alright. Real cowboys don't like the strong stuff; heck, we drink the stuff all day.” Well, that explains it.
Lunch starts at 11 a.m. and features mostly burgers and sandwiches with handles like cowpoke, ghost rider and Frisco kid. They may have western names, but most of the “fixins” inside are pretty standard, like chicken, American cheese, roast beef, turkey or fried fish. A few barbecued sandwiches are also offered on grilled French bread. I enjoyed the satisfying pulled pork version ($8.25) that was simmered in a flavorful sweet, and almost spicy, barbecue sauce. You can choose a side dish from fries, slaw or potato salad. Choose the slaw--the cabbage is sliced thin; it's lightly dressed and not too sweet. There's also a “greens 'n stuff” section on the menu featuring several entrée-type salads: chicken, shrimp or a traditional chef salad. The broccoli salad was a hit at the next table; it boasted bright green broccoli florets, bacon bits, raisins, sunflower seeds and a sweet homemade dressing.
When it comes to desserts, Susan offers an old-fashioned version of one of my favorites--bread pudding. She has the same slant on bread pudding that my own Nana had. She puts what she likes into it, so sometimes you'll find peaches and currants and another time bananas and nuts, so it's liable to be different every time. It can be served garnished with whipped cream, it's your choice.
As a general rule, the place is not open for dinner, but every now and then there's an “all-you-can-eat” special dinner, usually but not always on Wednesday nights. Susan told me they went through 20 pounds of pasta during a recent all-you-can-eat spaghetti and meatball extravaganza.
It's nice to know that good country vittles served in a comfortable setting are so close at hand.
Country Vittles Café; 4801 Central NE; 266-6103; Hours T-Su; 8 a.m.-2 p.m.; Price Range: Inexpensive; Master Card and Visa accepted.